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Asef Bayat - Shariati and Marx; A Critique of an 'Islamic' Critique of Marxism

Asef Bayat - Shariati and Marx; A Critique of an 'Islamic' Critique of Marxism

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Shariati and Marx: A Critique of an “Islamic” Critique of Marxism
Asef Bayat
Many have described Ali Shariati as the “ideologue” or the “architect” of the Iranian Revolution of 1979
.He has been represented as both an intellectual, who from a radical Islamic viewpoint, offered a vig-orous critique of Marxism and other “Western fallacies”
, and as a reformationist Islamic writer who was si-multaneously “influenced by Marxist social ideas”
.There is little disagreement on Shariati's role in transforming and refining the ideological perspectiveof millions of the literate Iranian youth. Shariati provided his audience with a firm and rigorous ideologicalmeans, by re-interpreting Islam through “scientific” concepts employed by the modern social sciences, an in-terpretation which the traditional Islamic clergy were incapable of formulating.Back in the late 1970s, when the University students in Tehran were involved in Islamic versus leftdebates, I observed how the rival “Islamic students” would rely almost totally on the teachings of the
(or the teacher) to support their fierce discussions. At that time each ideological camp had its own orga-nization, meetings, study groups, library, mountaineering trips, dress code and most importantly, a distinc-tive discourse. Both groups would compete avidly in their activities. However, at times they had to make an
ad hoc
tactical alliance, for instance during strike-planning, leafleteering and similar sensitive activities.Both groups had heroes too. We had our own heroes, and they had theirs. The men we praised were interna-tionally known: Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, Fanon, Che Guevara, Mao, and similar people. Their heroeswere as diverse as ours, if not more. They ranged from AI-Afghani, Iqbal Lahouri, Imam Musa Sadr to Jang-hali, the Rezaii brothers, Khomeini and Masoud Rajavi. For them, however, Shariati, was the greatest of he-roes.Shariati's seeming intellectual sophistication was intertwined with his radical political stand whichwould capture the spirit of his audience in those tense and repressive conditions in Iran. Such an intellectualsophistication reflected itself perhaps in the fact that not one serious critical assessment of his works has thusfar appeared by Iranian intellectuals
. On the other hand, Shariati's political stand was manifested in his mas-sive popularity in the anti-monarchy revolution of 1979 when thousands of his lecture-tapes and pamphletswere circulated among the basically Islamic youth. His reputation travelled beyond Iran, and the bulk of hisworks were translated into English, Arabic, German, Malay and other languages. He was regarded as one of the most prominent contemporary Islamic thinkers.
Ali Shariati was born in 1933 in a village located in the northern Khorasan where he completed his primary and secondary schools education
. His mother was from a land-owning family, and his father, awell-known local Islamic thinker and teacher who introduced modern critical thinkers to his students.Shariati's father had formed a short-lived Movement of God-Worshiping Socialists, in which Ali was amember and through which he acquired his first critical Islamic education. During his college years in theMashad Teachers’ College, he studied Arabic, and translated in 1956
 Abu Zarr Ghafari: The
God-Worship- ping 
, the story of the famous companion of the Prophet, who was critical of the early Caliphs.Shariati continued his studies in Mashad University in the Arabic and French languages. In the meantime, hewas involved, together with his father's group, in reviving the outlawed National Front, originally founded by the nationalist Prime Minister Mossadeq, in the late 1940s. For this activity, Shariati and his comradesspent eight months in prison.
 Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
, No. 1o, Marxism and the Critical Discourse (1990), 19-41.1 See for example Ervand Abrahamian “Ali Shariati: Ideologue of the Iranian Revolution”,
 Merip Reports
no.102 (1982); and Mangol Bayat, "Iran's Real Revolutionary Leader”,
Christian Science Monitor,
May 24,1977.2 See Hamid Algar, in Ali Shariati,
 Marxism and Other Western Fallacies
, (Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1982), pref-ace.3 M. Bayat,
The existing writings on Shariati tend to focus more on expounding his ideas than on systematic critical evalu-ation. In the late 1970s a pamphlet appeared in Tehran under a pseudonym Ali Akbar Akbari (possibly, he was IhsanTabari, the chief ideologue of the Iranian Communist Party) entitled
 Bar'rasi-ye Chand 
 Mas'ale-ye Ijtimaii
(An Evalua-tion of Some Social Issues). This work examines Shariati's critique of a mechanical type of Marxism, ignoring the morecritical and sophisticated types of Marxism.The works, in English, which discuss Shariati and his ideas include: Mangol Bayat, “Iran's Real Revolutionary Leader”,
Christian Science Monitor,
May 24,1977; M. Abedi, “Ali Shariati: The Architect of the 1979 Islamic Revolution inIran”,
 Iranian Studies
, vol. xix, nos. 3-4, (1986); A. Sachedina, “Ali Shariati: Ideologue of the Iranian Revolution”, inJ. L. Esposito (ed.),
Voices of Resurgent Islam,
(New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); E. Abrahamian,"Ali Shariati: Ideologue of the Iranian Revolution", in
 Merip Reports,
no. 102, (1982); H. Enayat,
 Modern Islamic Polit-ical Thought,
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), pp. 53-59; S. Akhavi, "Islam, Politics and Society in theThought of Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Taliqani and Ali Shariati",
 Middle Eastern Studies,
vol. 24, no. 4 (Oct.1988). By far the best discussion of Shariati is offered by Ervand Abrahamian, in
 Radical Islam: Mujahedin of Iran,
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), chapter 4.5 These biographical notes have heavily drawn upon E. Abrahamian,
 Radical Islam,
chapter 4.
He travelled in 1956 to Paris, then the capital of a major colonial power, where he spent some sev-eral years. This move proved to be a watershed in Shariati's political activities and intellectual development.This period coincided with the intense anti-colonial struggles throughout the world. He began to study philology at the Sorbonne, became engaged in anti-imperialist and student politics, edited two anti-regimePersian journals and translated a few books by radical and Marxist as well as Orientalist writers including:Ouzagan, Che Guevara, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, and Louis Massignon (a famous expert on Islamicmysticism), and developed a keen interest in Western Orientalism and radical Catholicism. He was also ex- posed to the ideas of French sociologists such as Raymond Aron, Roger Garaudy, Georges Politzer, and spe-cially the eminent French dialectician, Georges Gurvitch.In 1965, he returned to Iran where he was immediately put in jail for eight months for his politicalactivities abroad. In the following years he spent five years in Mashad, teaching at the College of Literature,and most of the remainder of his life in Tehran where he began the most productive period of his politicaland intellectual life. From 1969 until 1972, he lectured at the Husseinieh Irshad, a modern Islamic center innorthern Tehran. His lectures were either taped or published in several dozens of volumes, the most impor-tant of which being multi-volume
 Islam Shinasi
(Islamology). They were circulated widely among Muslimyouth.The Husseinieh center was shut down in 1972 by the government on the grounds that it had becomea breeding ground for the Mujahedin Khalq, a radical Muslim group which had launched armed struggleagainst the Shah's regime. Ervand Abrahamian, an Iranian historian, believes that the conservative clergyalso played a part in stopping Shariati's lectures, since they feared that Shariati was not promoting Islam, butWestern philosophies, especially Marxist sociology. After the closure of the Husseinieh center, Shariati wasarrested, and charged with having connections with the Mujahedin. He was released from prison after eigh-teen months. Upon his release, a series of essays was published in the widely-circulated daily paper,
.The essays, entitled,
 Insan, Islam va Marxism
 Man, Islam and Marxism
), were attributed to Shariati.
In 1977,he managed to leave the country. A month after arriving
in England, he suspiciously died in London. At thetime in
Tehran, we, both the leftists and the Islamic groups, never 
doubted the involvement of SAVAK in hisdeath, although the
British authorities related his death to a massive heart-attack.
Whatever the cause,SAVAK was to be blamed. His death,
contrary to the hopes of those who disliked him increased his
 popular-ity, and made Shariati a virtual legend among his
While there is little disagreement on Shariati's ideological and political role and popularity, the na-ture of his ideological and political stand, and his intellectual perspective have been a matter of debate. More precisely a confusion surrounds his “Islamic Marxism”, his attempt to utilize certain modern Marxist con-cepts such as: “class exploitation”, “class struggle”, “classless society”, “imperialism,” etc. — linking themwith the teachings of the Shiite leaders such as Imam Ali, Imam Hussein and Abu Zarr Ghafari (whomShariati called the the first “God-worshipping socialist”)
.In those tense days of the pre-revolutionary con- juncture, and against the background of the grand left-Islamic division, Shariati's ideas provided, on the onehand, the grounds for a possible discursive link between the two tendencies, and on the other, a deep confu-sion among us — a confusion around what Shariati indeed stood for. Adding to this confusion was the ap- pearance in 1977 of the pamphlet entitled:
 Insan, Islam va
in which Shariati systematically dealtwith Marxist principles. About ten years later I had a chance to read, in a less confused state of mind, anEnglish version of the very same text under a new title
 Marxism and Other Western Fallacies,
in a book-likecollection by the same name, which was published by Mizan Press in Berkeley, California. Since this text is believed to represent Shariati’s most intense discussion of Marxism an attempt will be made to deal with itin some detail.
In general, the text, which is a critique of the existing humanist philosophies including Marxism,draws upon a radical Islamic conception of man. On the whole the book consists of four major themes whichwill be discussed in turn.First: The Western philosophies—Western liberalism, Existentialism, and Marxism—do possess anhumanistic perspective. But their conception of humanism is materialistic.According to the text, Western humanism rests firmly upon the mythological perspective of ancientGreece. In this perspective there exists a constant struggle between humanity and the gods who want tomaintain man in darkness and ignorance. Here, man is praised and is given a high value in contrast to thegods. This humanism, therefore, establishes a distance between man and god. The text argues that all thesegreat humanists—from Diderot and Voltaire to Feuerbach and Marx—have indeed equated the Greek godswhich are tyrannical and anti-human with the spiritual conceptions of God such as Ahurmazda, Rama, theTao, the Messiah and Allah. Since these philosophers have wrongly generalized the Greek contradistinctionof human versus God and spirituality, their humanism is earthly, un-heavenly and in a word materialistic. Nowonder the communist societies are not much different from the bourgeois ones in their conception of man.In both, everything culminates in man; both disregard “the spiritual dimension of the human essence”
.Western humanism is considered atheist in another sense, for it considers man to possess, as his human na-ture, a moral conscience which determines his moral values and which acts as a substitute for God. The text
6 See Mehdi Abedi, op. cit., p. 230.7 Ali Shariati,
 Marxism and Other Western Fallacies,
 p. 21.
contends that Western humanist philosophies which postulate a distance between man and God are ignorantof the Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Islam and sufism. These religions are based upon the
(notdistance) between God and man, thus their humanism is heavenly.Second: Even though, the text goes on, we may concede that the Western humanist and intellectualcurrents may possess in their theories a liberating principle, in practice, they have lost this aspect of their re-ality. Take, for instance, Marxism which promised to liberate man from the inhumanity of capitalism. In re-ality, it shared quite the same attitudes towards man as capitalism, i.e., adherence to mundane prosperity,materialism, consumerism, etc. On the other hand, religions such as Christianity, Islam and Taoism too de-clined from the liberating ideologies into the bureaucratic, power-hungry and materialistic church or clerical-ism, to mass formalities, taboos and superstitions. Similarly, the spirit of the Renaissance (which meant lib-eration of spirit, of science, and of the intellect) turned into capitalism, scientism and liberalism character-ized
 by egoism, opportunism and consumption, and in which faith, ideas, love, the meaning of existence andman did not get attention.Third: Since Marxism, unlike other Western ideologies, is a comprehensive ideology, dealing witheconomics, politics, ethics, history, philosophy, etc., it is the strongest rival to Islam and must be dealt withthoroughly. The text, then, takes the major philosophical issues of Marxism to distinguish it from Islam. To begin with, like other Western humanist schools, the text claims that Marx's critique of religion is basedupon the Greek humanist philosophy which sees opposition, rather than unity, between God and man. Is-lamic understanding, on the contrary, is derived from the conception of 
, unity. Religion, in Marx,goes beyond rationality and signifies the helplessness of man. Whereas we in Islam, the author asserts, be-lieve that conceptions of heaven and hell are rational and scientific. On the other hand, Marx basing his argu-ment on the conceptions of infra-structure and super-structure, views man as a part of the latter reducing himto the tools, considering religion, ethics, morality, man's virtues as determined by economic forces. Hence,man has no independent and noble reality—an idea that Islam totally rejects. In quite the same fashion, theauthor charges Marx with not giving man any significant place in history. In Marxist theory, the text goeson, man is logically incapable since he is the creation of his environment. Historical changes are not the out-come of man's role, but of the contradiction between the forces and the relations of production. If that is thecase, the text wonders, what about all these martyrs in history, upheavals and revolutions.Finally, this Marxism which boasts to be the ruthless critique of capitalism has ended up sharing thesame values with it. Both systems, capitalism and communism, are in practice based upon “productivism”,“mechanism”, “techno-bureaucracy”, “acquisitiveness”, “economic competition” and “materialism”. What isnow being criticized as Stalinism is in fact a continuation of Leninism and eventually Marxism itself.What distinguishes socialism from capitalism is that in the latter a (bourgeois) ruling class owns or controls the means of production, whereas in the former, the state takes control.Fourth: Only Islam, the text contends, possesses true humanism. In Islam, humanism is a collectionof the divine values in man that constitute his morals and religious cultural heritage. Drawing on the Islamicconcept of 
man is viewed as a contradictory being possessing the dual essence of clay and divinespirit, of dust and God, and the will to choose one over the other. It follows that, first, in Islam man has a no- bility not on its own but only in relation to God; secondly, man has a destiny; thirdly, man has a choice. Pos-session of choice confers upon man a responsibility to elevate himself from being dust towards union withGod (this is very similar to the Hegelian concept of absolute idea which evolves from nothingness to becom-ing everything). This responsibility or 
for Shariati is a highly critical concept as he tends to extendits implications from the realm of philosophy and theology to that of politics. Thus, he implicitly calls uponthe Third World masses in general and the Muslims in particular, to elevate themselves from captivity to be-come the “regents of God on earth”, to deliverance. (This approach is also similar to Marx's Hegelianmetaphor of the development of class from being “in itself” to that “for itself”).Responsibility to liberate ourselves, meanwhile, implies self-reliance; more precisely it means cul-tural, political, and strategic self-reliance which in plain political language manifests the strategy of “neither East nor West”, neither capitalism nor communism, but “return to self”.
Without doubt the text appears to exhibit a powerful critique, from an Islamic vantage point, of theWestern humanist philosophies, in particular of Marxism. The text gives the impression that it has been writ-ten by an author who, while deeply involved in his own indigenous intellectual traditions, seems to be wellaware of the rival European intellectual currents. Back in the late 1970s in Tehran, the Husseinieh Center, anuncharacteristically modern “mosque” in an affluent northern part of Tehran (Gholhak) where Shariati deliv-ered his lectures, would be overflowing with people, not just the radical Muslims, but also the leftists. At thattime, we could not conceal our admiration for Shariati's knowledge of Marxism. Perhaps his seemingly pro-found critique, combined with his radical political stand, made Ali Shariati appear to be the most influentialrevolutionary thinker in recent Iranian history
The present ruling clergy in Iran, too, attempts to present Ali Shariati as the friend of the Islamic state. This isclear in view of the annual commemorations, exhibitions of his works, etc. At least one reason for this seems to be thefact that Ali Shariati is not at present alive, and thus cannot pose a threat to the legitimacy of the kind of Islam that the present ruling clergy in Iran subscribes to. Hamid Algar, in the Preface of the book attempts to bridge the gap of politi-cal stand and ideological orientation between Shariati and the ruling clergy. There seem to be numerous concrete factsthat work against this effort. To begin with, all the leaders of Mujahedin Khalq who have waged a fierce battle againstAyatollah's regime have been the students of Shariati. In addition quite recently, the Bureau for the Diffusion of 

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